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When first introduced to the fermented tea known as kombucha, it seemed a quirky novelty that I had to try. After home brewing a successful batch, I turned my attention away for a couple years, but my interest was renewed when I discovered commercially made kombucha available in stores. In the years since, I have watched kombucha grow into a flourishing industry. The convenience of purchasing a bottle from the local co-op certainly spurred me to make it a regular part of my daily refreshment. I remember watching the burgeoning niche market as interest in digestive health, and probiotics grew. Since that time, I have noticed many more kombucha brands entering the market. Seeking to find a niche, brands introduced an amazing variety of selections and flavors. Today, I can find kombucha widely available in supermarkets, restaurants, and even in convenience stores. Yet even with this ubiquity, I’m still pleasantly surprised to discover new flavors and options wherever I look. It seems that, much like the effervescent result, kombucha continues to reward, as interest and sales grow steadily. Lucky to observe kombuchas growth from niche to mainstream, I will share my perspective from a time before kombucha was commonplace. I’ll share the story of my first batch, and how my relationship and understanding of kombucha has progressed through the years.
Image courtesy of Katherine Souza - Unsplash

It’s fizzy tea, no?

First, let’s understand what makes kombucha unique from other fermented beverages. Kombucha begins as a brewed tea, with sugar added to support fermentation by a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. As the yeast and bacteria grow, they metabolize sugar and tea into several different compounds resulting in a mild tasting drink containing many organic acids and probiotic organisms that aid digestion. The symbiosis, often abbreviated as SCOBY, results in cellular waste that floats on the carbon dioxide bubbles released by yeast. This floating pad, called a pellicule, looks somewhat like a wet mushroom cap, hence one name for kombucha, “tea mushroom.” The pellicule and the SCOBY are not technically a mushroom, but the yeast within are members of the fungus family.  


Fizzy mushroom then?

In the mid 1990’s, “tea mushroom” was surrounded by mystique and misinformation. Not available in stores, the only way to obtain kombucha was by brewing it at home, and starter cultures were only available from other brewing enthusiasts. When I had an opportunity to brew a batch, I remember the handwritten instructions, the long list of requirements for success, and dire warnings about contamination, but I was lucky to have previous experience brewing beer, so proper equipment and sanitation were readily available. Thus began my adventure with this complex form of fermentation. 


Fermentation and me

Since high school, I have nurtured an interest in fermentation. My father would put a few raisins in fresh apple cider to make it taste tangy and bubbly, and curiosity led me to research this process. I knew wild yeast often sticks to grape skins, and would begin growing in cider. Ever the experimenter, I bought two gallons of cider and tossed in a packet of bread yeast. The resulting hard cider was almost flavorless, and rather high in alcohol content. The bread yeast I used had fermented away all the sugar, leaving behind only ethanol. I had inadvertently discovered an important fact about yeast. Yeast strains matter when it comes to fermentation.



Though yeast is a member of the fungus family, yeasts are single cells, and don’t form a mushroom, so calling kombucha “tea mushroom” is not quite correct. In kombucha, yeasts perform primary and secondary fermentations, each thriving from the metabolites of other microorganisms in the symbiotic mix. Several yeasts of the Saccharomyces family live together, each one having a slightly different role. S. cerevisiae, is the yeast in bread and beer, converts sugar to alcohol. Brettanomyces yeast converts sugar to alcohol, and then acetic acid, giving kombucha a cider-like aroma. Also found are S. ludwigii, S apiculatus, and a unique to kombucha, Zygosaccharomyces kombuchaensis. This one contributes to the unique floating pellicule that forms on the surface. Occurring as multiple floating layers of cellulose, this pellicule can resemble a floating mushroom cap, and is probably responsible for the name “tea mushroom,” but this pellicule is not a mushroom, just a floating layer of cellulose from accumulating yeast cells.  


My First Batch 

At university, I shared a house with several amateur fermentation enthusiasts. Having previously made wine, beer, and sauerkraut, we shared a natural curiosity about “tea mushroom,” and wanted to brew our own. Our large and lively kitchen was already home to a few fermentation experiments, mostly the result of neglected sanitation. Once we finally located a kombucha starter culture, we diligently cleaned and sanitized surfaces in preparation for the big brewing event. The starter we had consisted of a glass jar, floating pellicule, and SCOBY of the microorganisms in kombucha culture. Gathering enthusiastically as we heated water for the tea, we were curious about the odd appearance, and vinegar aroma of the culture. The accompanying instructions, a crooked photocopy of handwritten notes, seemed to be a long list of “don’ts.” Don’t stir with a wooden spoon, don’t ferment in a metal container, and, especially, don’t let the fermenting kombucha become contaminated! Fortunately, my experience brewing beer had equipped me with proper sanitation and a glass carboy. Gathering the necessary ingredients was as simple as a walk to the grocery store, where I purchased a box of black tea bags and a bag of white sugar. I boiled water, introduced the sugar, then 6 tea bags, and allowed the mixture to cool enough to pour in the glass jug. Once it had cooled to room temperature, I poured in the bag of starter, capped the jug with an airlock, and set it on top of the refrigerator, where the temperature was in the upper 70 degrees, a bit warmer than ambient room temperature.


 Use Our DIY Recipe To Ferment Your Own Ginger Beer! 
Image courtesy of Megumi Nachev - Unsplash

Gifting Culture

At the time I made my first brew, there was no kombucha available in stores, it was only something shared person to person. Each new batch of home brewed kombucha produced a new SCOBY in the form of floating pellicule, so gifting them was a great opportunity to share kombucha with friends. Amateur kombucha brewers were often eager to share their knowledge, and their enthusiasm helped inspire the ever growing interest in kombucha. 


Bubbles & Swarm

Thriving in the warmth of the kitchen, our kombucha batch began to ferment, bubbling steadily as the yeast produced carbon dioxide. Soon I noticed the formation of a thin membrane floating on the surface. Bubbles collected underneath, and there was occasional blurp in the membrane when gas was released. I was surprised, though, to see a small swarm of fruit flies hovering around the airlock. Fruit flies?

I pulled the jug down for a moment, and noticed a faint vinegar aroma. “Is something wrong?” I wondered, “Is it spoiled?” 

Concerned, I called the friend who gave us the original culture, “It’s supposed to smell like that. That’s from the probiotic bacteria in there.” I was somewhat reassured, but not entirely convinced, yet I let it ferment a bit longer.  


Freshly brewed kombucha is alive with probiotics, specifically, members of the Acetobacter family of bacteria. These bacteria also produce the flavors and aroma of kombucha as they metabolize the sugars and some of the tea in the brew. Some bacteria produce lactic acid, others produce acetic acid, and the Gluconacetobacter, unique to kombucha, produces acetic and gluconic acid. These organic acids aid in digestion and possibly help chelate some compounds in the body for elimination. 

Over the next few days, I watched as the floating SCOBY pellicule grew thicker, and formed layers. Two weeks had elapsed since I began the fermentation, and the kombucha was ready to drink. My friends and I gathered around with curiosity as I decanted the liquid to a fresh jar, leaving the surprisingly heavy pellicule behind. I poured the amber liquid in shot glasses, and with a bit of trepidation, we sipped our samples…  

…Bubbly, a faint tangy flavor, yet sweeter than I expected. 

Sweet But Less Sweet

Sugars are not fully fermented by the yeasts or bacterial cultures in kombucha, so there is some residual sugar after fermentation. For those seeking to consume less sugars, this aspect may suggest moderation in serving size. While some sugars do remain, there are not as many as found in other sweetened beverages, and this might account for some of kombucha’s popularity. With less sugar, tart flavor, and bubbles, kombucha was noticeably more refreshing to me than other beverages. 

When I first noticed a commercially distributed kombucha, GT’s brand, I was intrigued, so I bought a bottle to taste. This kombucha was well carbonated in the glass bottle. The flavor was mild and tangy, but not overly sweet. It was very refreshing, more so than the natural soda I originally intended to buy. I preferred the taste and lightness of kombucha to my habitual energy drinks, so I began to enjoy it more frequently. 

For some years, GT’s Kombucha was the leading brand at LifeSource, but demand for kombucha continued to grow, and several new kombucha brands began to enter the marketplace. As interest in healthier beverages expanded, distributors began to offer stores more kombucha brands, and flavor options. There was now some competition for space in store coolers, and this variety of options brought more interest to kombucha as a healthy alternative to sodas. This coincided with a growing interest in digestive health, and probiotics. Bottled kombucha offered a tasty and convenient source of probiotics, and helped grow interest in functional refreshment. Kombucha drinks with active probiotic cultures began to dominate the market. 

Regulations & Law

Kombucha sales had increased significantly, but some concerns about alcohol content were raised by regulatory authorities. Kombucha contains a small amount of alcohol produced by yeast. There is a legal limit to the amount of alcohol present in beverages such as orange juice, kombucha, or ciders. Under current law, alcohol content must be under 0.5% or the beverage is subject to regulation and taxation as an alcoholic beverage. Kombucha brewers can measure and control alcohol content at bottling, but there was a concern that continued fermentation in the bottle may result in more alcohol, and the end product would be over the half percent limit. This meant regulation as an alcoholic beverage, and classification as beer rather than kombucha. 

The kombucha brewing industry is seeking to change the regulation, arguing it is inappropriate because the 0.5% alcohol limit was not based on any scientific studies, and was unfair to impose on this growing sector of beverages. Despite this, kombucha brewers are required to ensure compliance with legislation in effect, so some brewers began researching methods to reduce residual alcohol in their products, and others sought to comply by selling through alcohol distribution channels, paying the ‘beer tax’ in order to remain available to consumers. 

GT’s Kombucha, though they disagreed with the classification, arranged to have their original formula kombucha carried by beer and wine distributors already serving natural foods markets. This meant GT’s kombucha moved to the beer cooler, and sales were restricted to those over 21 years of age. GT’s was quick to bring to market new formulations of their favorites to remain under 0.5% alcohol. The end result was more shelf space for the GT’s brand, and a choice between the original and new formulation. Eventually, with public taste moving towards lower sugar beverages, the new GT’s kombucha options became the default at LifeSource, and the over 21 kombucha was phased out.

Oregon representatives Earl Blumenauer and Ron Wyden have reintroduced legislation each year to raise alcohol level limitation from 0.5% to 1.2%. Arguing that regulating and taxing kombucha as beer is outdated and hampers the growing industry. Seeking to create limits that more accurately reflect what is permissible in kombucha, the bill continues to see growing bipartisan support, though not enough to pass yet. If the bill eventually passes, the kombucha brewing industry would benefit overall. 

Lower Sugars 

Lower sugar kombucha options performed increasingly well as people sought to control calories and sugars in their diet. Among brands, the competition for cooler space and placement was heating up. Now instead of carrying a full line of products from one brand, merchants would make room for several brands by only carrying the best selling flavors. Distributors began to do the same, looking to save warehouse space, and grow profitable. This encouraged Kombucha companies to emphasize their most popular flavors, and preserve a sense of variety by offering seasonal special flavors, much like the beer industry had been doing. Taking another cue from the beer industry, Brew Dr. Kombucha began to offer kombucha on tap, and LifeSource was one of the first stores to offer three varieties of fresh kombucha on tap. 

More Than Ever Before! 

Over the last ten years we have seen kombucha and other probiotic beverages continue to grow rapidly in popularity. LifeSource now has an entire cooler dedicated to functional beverages, including an abundant selection of kombucha brands, flavors, and new ingredients such as CBD. Mass market distributors have taken note of the growth potential for kombucha, and have introduced the beverage in convenience stores and large conventional retailers as well. The popularity of kombucha has followed market trends as people seek healthier and more functional beverages. Kombucha, now available in many bars and restaurants, offers a popular option for festive non-alcoholic beverages, while hard kombucha, an adult oriented beverage, joins lighter alcohol beverages like cider and spritzers as they rise in popularity.  

  Perhaps a tasty cocktail after that long read?
Try one of these favorites!

Homemade Dark & Stormy Cocktail

Kombucha Mojito

Kombucha Moscow Mule

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